Grant could mean new park along Whetstone

In this file photo from 2015, a man views the Whetstone Brook from a parcel at 250 Birge Street. On Wednesday, the Vermont River Conservancy received an EPA Brownsfield Program grant to remove contaminated fill from the 12-acre parcel and restore it as a floodplain.

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BRATTLEBORO — Depending on how the community feels about it, there might be some sort of new park on the outskirts of downtown Brattleboro soon.

"Once we are done with restoration of 250 Birge St., there will be a community conversation as to how best this 12-acre parcel can be used," Steve Libby, director of the Vermont River Conservancy, told the Reformer on Thursday.

"Our only restriction is the parcel has to be an effective flood plain. There can't be any structures on the site."

On Wednesday, the offices of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., announced the conservancy is in line to receive a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency's Brownfields Program.

In November, the conservancy purchased the property from Cersosimo Industries.

"Removing contaminated soils from the 'Sawdust Alley' property in downtown Brattleboro is a crucial first step in the restoration of a

12-acre flood plain on Whetstone Brook that will alleviate flood damage to downstream properties," Libby said in a release from Leahy and Welch.

'New open space'

"The project will also provide a significant new open space area for Brattleboro residents to wander along the shoreline of Whetstone Brook and enjoy the birds and wildlife that will return to this urban setting."

Fill was used on the site to prevent flooding there so it could be used for industrial uses, such as a sawmill for the Estey Organ Factory, according to documents filed with the Brattleboro Planning Department.

Over the years, the fill became lightly contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

According to the National Institutes of Health, PAHs are a group of more than 100 different chemicals that are released from burning coal, oil, gasoline, trash, tobacco, wood, or other organic substances such as charcoal-broiled meat. Other activities that release PAHs include driving, agricultural burning, roofing or working with coal tar products, sound- and water-proofing, coating pipes, steelmaking, and paving with asphalt.

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"The plan is to remove a significant amount of fill material — about 10,000 yards — so that during moderate flooding that land will become inundated, which will reduce the flooding damage downstream," said Libby.

Following Tropical Storm Irene, the Whetstone Brook overflowed its banks and caused considerable damage along Route 9, Frost Street and Williams Street and in downtown Brattleboro. As Vermont finished cleaning up from the state-wide devastation, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development commissioned the Vermont Economic Resiliency Initiative, which identified the top 32 communities where economic activity and associated infrastructure are at high risk of flooding. The parcel that was purchased by the Conservancy was identified for restoration and conservation in the Brattleboro Community Report portion of the VERI. "This particular parcel ranked very high as a priority," said Libby, adding that within the next six months, the Conservancy will begin a community discussion as how best the parcel can benefit the public once the contaminated fill is removed. Libby noted that because the fill is only lightly contaminated, it could be reused for something like a road bed, as long as it doesn't expose the public to the PAHs.

Libby credited the Windham County Natural Resources Conservation District, Brattleboro Conservation Commission, the Brattleboro Planning Department and the Vermont Land Trust for helping to identify the parcel and move it into the restoration process.

"This is just one piece of the puzzle," said Rod Francis, Brattleboro's director of planning services. "This parcel turned up in lots of reports for a potential floodplain project that would benefit the immediate neighborhood and improve conditions downstream."

Francis said it's hard to estimate what effect the restored floodplain would have in mitigating an Irene-level event, but it should prove to be quite effective in smaller events.

He also noted the restored parcel will be an excellent resource for a neighborhood that doesn't have easy access to open space.

"We would like it to have passive open space ability, with an educational aspect that can inform the public about floodplain restrictions," said Francis. He also noted that the restoration project won't change any of the lot's current uses, such as a place to walk dogs. "But we want to make it better," said Francis.

The $200,000 granted to the Conservancy is part of a $1.35 million package given to Vermont.

"These sizeable grants are the latest Brownfields grants to improve Vermont communities and local economies," stated Welch and Leahy in the press release. "All across the state, there are properties that are vacant and abandoned because of past contamination. These funds will help assess the extent of the contamination, as a first step towards cleaning them up and making them productive again."

The Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission was awarded a $300,000 assessment grant, the Northeast Vermont Development Association was awarded a $600,000 assessment grant and the town of Springfield was awarded a $250,000 assessment grant.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or